While My Guitarist Swiftly Leaves
30 July 1994
Submitted by: Inge Klinkers
WHILE ME GUITARIST SWIFTLY LEAVES
What a gaffing idiot, eh readers? You're the genius guitarist in SUEDE, you've just finished your second album and then… you bugger off amid rumours of nervous breakdowns and irrational behaviour. JOHN HARRIS details the rift between BERNARD BUTLER and BRETT ANDERSON, leading up to their split, and ponders the future of Britain's biggest guitar hopes.
You join us in a gaudy theatre in the bowels of Blackpool Tower. The group is striding, magnificently, through the opening moments of ‘Pantomime Horse’, and their guitar player is conspicuous by his absence.
Seconds later, he appears from behind a huge speaker stack, wearing a smile at least a foot wide, glaring at the crowd through saucer-like eyes, and throwing some of the most ludicrous poses imaginable. "Look at me!" he seems to be saying "Never mind the nonce in the blouse, flailing the microphone lead like a bullwhip in the usual fashion - feast your eyes on me. This is my group, my tune, and my night."
Days later, someone in a London pub is telling an NMEjournalist another story about Bernard Butler's exasperation with the drooled-over persona that Brett Anderson has constructed for himself - about how it's detracting from the group's art, and that every time he opens a music paper he has to steel himself against imminent embarrassment.
Months ago, such stories seemed to indicate nothing other than a healthy dose of mild rivalry and occasional dislike; the kind that provides the motor behind the creativity of legions of bands. Right now, they look more like the actions of someone whose irritation with his group was getting more pronounced each day.
SOME HISTORY first. Bernard Butler was born in 1971 in Stamford Hill, a nondescript borough of north London, renowned for little other than its large orthodox Jewish community and being the birthplace of Marc Bolan. His parents were Irish, and his father financed the family by working as a warehouseman for Eveready batteries.
He was tutored at secondary school in the violin, stole his brothers’ electric guitar at the age of 13 and set about learning its rudiments. Tellingly, his chief motivation was one of the most talented, lauded and self-motivated guitarists of the last decade.
"The Smiths were the first pop group that meant something to me," he said. "Hearing Johnny Marr made me want to play guitar properly, without a doubt."
By his late teens, Bernard was studying history at Queen Mary College, London - and beginning to enjoy the musty-smelling slog of life in the capital's rat-hutch venues. Answering a classified advert in NME("no musos"), he'd met two students in charge of a group called Suede, noted that they were both tumbling towards their mid-'20s, and told them they had better get their act together very quickly.
Soon after, the Butler/Anderson songwriting partnership was forged; a distant arrangement in which Brett placed his words over finished instrumental tracks that Bernard had pored over. At this point, the creative union was complicated by the presence of Justine Frischmann, Brett's girlfriend and Suede's rhythm guitarist. Bernard's disdain for her abilities was obvious: she ended up feeling like a "useless twat", holed up in a group that was trapped on the margins.
"It wasn't fun near the end," she remembered. If you're playing second guitar with Bernard there's not a lot of room for you to do anything. It didn’t help that a lot of people were going ‘This is crap', but vibe-wise it was quite grim. It got to the stage where I thought, 'This Isn't working and nothing ever will'."
This incarnation of Suede recorded a single ('Be My God'/'Art') that was never released, eventually replaced their drum machine with a carrot-topped ex-punk called Simon Gilbert, trudged around a succession of miserable London venues, and then disappeared. When they returned, they were a changed beast: Justine had been ejected ("We were never any good until we kicked her out," said a mischievously acerbic Mat Osman), and they had become a skewed, garish, strident rock group: the Suede that would soon make legions of A&R people salivate like small children.
They signed with the nascent Nude Records in 1992 and began work on their first single with Ed Buller. According to his close associates, Buller's relationships with his groups tend to revolve around the person he considers to be the key member - who he’ll take into his confidence, drench in compliments, and treat as an equal partner in the recording process. Not surprisingly, Buller chose Bernard Butler, who was, according to insiders, "ridiculously happy" with the results of Buller’s labours.
The more glaring aspects of Suede's ascent can be skipped over: wowing thousands with the release of 'The Drowners', touring with Kingmaker and convincing bystanders that they really were as great as people said, crashlanding on Top Of The Pops when 'Metal Mickey' entered the Top 20, sacking first manager Jon Eydmann and concluding an immaculate opening trilogy with the release of 'Animal Nitrate'.
And through all this, Bernard's wilful independence from the circus surrounding Suede was becoming more and more pronounced. By January 1993 he had largely stopped conversing with journalists, instructing his minions that he "didn't want people to bug him".
"We're becoming even more different sides of the same person," Brett told NME. "We're Siamese twins fighting against each other. He's got a very content private life and he doesn't want anything to eat away at it. I think it's come to a time now where roles are being more clearly defined, and he sees it as my role to be more the public face of the band… which is fair enough."
Within the group, the traditional frictions and divisions that hold sway between flamboyant, show-off singers and their virtuoso sidekicks (cf Jagger and Richards, Morrissey and Marr) were taking shape. According to London chatter, Bernard was beginning to see Brett's diligently-constructed persona - the sexual ambiguity, the alluring intellectualism, the candid talk about the artistic benefits of drugs - as an unnecessary impediment; so much clutter that clouded the unquestionable excellence of the music.
Such quiet exasperation represented the seeds of the split. Brett and Bernard had never been close - Bernard's social existence revolved around his girlfriend of several years' standing, Brett was a more footloose spirit - so there was no bedrock of long-term friendship (as with Anderson and Osman) on which to fall back when the repercussions of Suede's success divided them. Therein lies part of the explanation for the events of the last month.
‘SUEDE' WAS released in March 1993. The warped charms of its lyrics aside, the roots of much of its allure lay in the astounding contributions from Bernard. Under Buller's careful tutelage, he'd crafted a succession of delights: the delicate, impassioned backcloth of 'She's Not Dead', the breathtaking torrent that swept over 'Pantomime Horse'... the sparkling, strident nuances that were smeared all over the singles. People started to speak of Bernard as the rightful heir to Johnny Marr's mantle: an authentic guitar hero.
Soon after, Suede toured America, eventually returning to Britain enthusing about the soul-boosting merits of life in Los Angeles and shrugging off rumours of dire arguments between Brett and Bernard.
Meanwhile, the crucial facets of Bernard's character - stubbornness, a staunch belief in the veracity of his own opinions, a desire to be separate from the rest of the group - became steadily more obvious. In November last year the group arrived at the NME offices to participate in a mock-up press conference with fans and attend the premiere of Love And Poison, a beautifully filmed record of one of the summer's Brixton Academy shows, directed by Wiz. Bernard arrived alone, looking pallid and nervous. His father had just died of cancer and he had the aura of someone who desperately wanted to be somewhere else.
They talked, guardedly at first, about the film, about how Wiz's more fanciful visual ideas had to be cut from the footage, given the fact that they betrayed a view of the group (founded on the paraphernalia of British nationalism and a welter of rock clichés) that had nothing to do with their own perceptions. And when they eventually broke from their conversational torpor, it was Bernard who led the charge.
In soft-spoken tones, he ranted. He talked about how he'd been horrified to find the girl whose presence glued the film together being filmed wearing a Union Jack vest, about how Wiz had to be continually brought to heel, and how he was tired of even more unnecessary baggage being piled upon the groups' image.
"Nothing is ever the way it is in your dreams," he declared. "Wiz wanted us to be this idolised British band that people are obsessed about. A lot of people are, I know, but a lot of people like jumping up and down and singing 'what does it take to turn you on'. That's the truth of the matter, and it hurts some people."
The subtext of all this was clear: Bernard was totally exasperated with the concept of ‘New English Rock' - which heralded Suede as the bulwark of opposition to an American invasion - the continued use of words like 'icons' and whatever else. He was trying, desperately, to reclaim Suede from the myth-producers and root the group in some kind of reality.
He seemed to escape the stifling effects of all this by playing with other musicians, appearing onstage with Teenage Fanclub, the Manics and the Gigolo Aunts, with his fringe over his face and a sly smile. In the meantime, however, he had been forced aboard the hulking Suede ship once more, following the release of the eight-minute epic 'Stay Together'.
WHICH IS where we encounter another strand in Suede's breakdown: Bernard's desire to craft freeform, improvisational epics, and his consequent rumoured conflict with the more clipped sensibilities of his partner and producer. The astounding length and multi-faceted madness of ‘Stay Together' came from Bernard alone - it was, in essence, an exorcism.
"When we recorded 'Stay Together' I was stoned 24 hours a day," he said. "My dad was dying, I was having a shit time. I was getting up, going to see my dad and then coming to the studios at midday, working until midnight. It wasn't nice: my father was dying and I had to make a record.
"So, whatever I did on 'Stay Together' was the A to Z of the emotions I was experiencing... defiance, loss, a final sigh. It sounds corny but I didn't realise until later that it said something incredibly deep for me. I also felt guilty in case I was using what was happening to sell records."
'Stay Together', it transpired, wasn't an aberration. It was a harbinger of the direction in which Bernard wanted to move: he talked about how much he'd been impressed by Verve and their disregard for traditional musical parameters, and he wanted to do something similar. And if he couldn't do it with Suede he'd develop sideline projects. He'd begun already.
"I'm desperate to do things outside of Suede," he enthused. "The only thing that will keep Suede going is if I'm allowed to branch out, because Brett's so f—ing slow it drives me insane, I can't get on with my own thing. I'm working on some stuff I can't talk about because not even Brett knows about it, but I'll be doing that, and it will be very different to Suede. I just want to be a musician and be involved in everything that's fun, and that keeps me human. I think if I get involved in lots of little things they won't be able to shoot me down.
"I wish I was in the kind of band where we could improvise over and over, but when you get someone like Brett on your hands it's impossible, because when he gets bored he simply puts the microphone down and ends the song. All those criticisms about poncey self-indulgence are the kind of cynical or calculated comments you get from a singer. They'd never come from a guitar player's lips. I'm going to do far more. Just you watch me."
Those words now take on a portentous air, confirmed by talking to associates of the group. One theory - hinted at by Bernard when he phoned NME's news desk - is that Ed Buller ruled out an epic like 'Stay Together', Bernard issued a "me or him" ultimatum, and Suede called his bluff. It makes perfect sense.
What is undoubtedly nonsense is the rumour that Bernard quit because of animosity towards Brett's girlfriend. Bernard says he hardly knows her; there are deeper, more complex reasons for the rupture within the group.
There are some inescapable historical rules that should be brought to mind when surveying the fallout from all this. The most crucial is that when guitarists split from singers they usually fare better, graduating to the post of freelance axe and continuing to be hailed as virtuosos, while their ex-partners, forever trapped by the ghost of their first group, are berated for never equalling their past work: witness Morrissey and Marr.
Such thoughts must be coursing around the mind of Brett Anderson as he sits in a north London studio mixing an album that stands as the closing chapter of the first phase of Bernard Butler's creative life; and what might - in the worst possible scenario - mark the final peak of his own. We'll see.